Greatest Game Ever Played, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to this sort of true-life sports story, Disney has cornered the market. In the past few years, the studio has released four fact-based tales of triumph, each centered on a different kind of game people play. First, there was Remember the Titans (football). That was followed by The Rookie (baseball) and Miracle (hockey). Now, we have The Greatest Game Ever Played (golf). Undoubtedly, Disney would have tried a basketball movie if Hoosiers hadn't set the bar so high. (Apparently, there is one in the pipeline.)

There's nothing surprising about what happens during the course of this movie. It follows the formula as rigorously as it sticks to the facts. This is about the triumph of the underdog, but it is not about the struggle of good versus evil. Director Bill Paxton and screenwriter Mark Frost (from his non-fiction book) go to great pains not to demonize the protagonist's opponents. There are no classic bad guys; the villain in this story is the strict class system that divided people into "gentlemen" and "peasants." Vestiges of that schism exist today, but they're nothing like what they were at the turn of the last century, when this movie transpires. As far as historical accuracy is concerned, The Greatest Game Ever Played takes liberties, but fewer than it might. This is a reasonably faithful account of what happened during the 1913 U.S. Golf Open. (The final score and the closeness of the last two holes of the playoff have been tinkered with to enhance the suspense.)

As a child, Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) grew up across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. For several years, he worked as a caddie and secretly played the course before hours and after hours. His first foray into competitive golf was to enter the U.S. Amateur, but he was eliminated in an early round. Nevertheless, when the 1913 U.S. Open came to The Country Club, the president of the U.S. Golf Association wanted a local player in the tournament, and his choice was Francis. After learning that two of England's reigning golfers - Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) and Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus) - would be competing, Francis agreed. Harry was his hero, and he would do anything to be on the same course as the five-time British Open champ. Harry's father, Arthur (Elias Koteas) opposed the idea, but his mother, Mary (Marnie McPhail), supported him. With his faithful caddie, a fifth-grader named Eddie (Josh Flitter), carrying his bag, Francis stepped to the tee of the first hole. And the rest is history.

In addition to proceeding with the time-honored underdog overachieving formula, Paxton does something smart by giving us enough background about Harry to place him in the same category as Francis. Both are from working-class backgrounds and, despite their proficiency on the golf course, they are social pariahs around "gentlemen." Harry and Francis' demons are much the same. By the time they square off in the Open, their enemies aren't one another, but the rules of an outdated class system that expects them to "know their place." Francis' father accepts this system, and his views cause a rift to develop.

There's a lot of talent in this film, both behind and in front of the camera, despite the absence of any "big names." Shia LaBeouf is a budding star - some viewers will remember him from Holes, where he had the lead role. He has a fresher face than some of his better-known contemporaries, and this part fits him like a glove. Stephen Dillane is a veteran British character actor who keeps Harry real and sympathetic. For actor Bill Paxton, this is his second directorial effort (after Frailty). He keeps the film lively and moving. His use (but not overuse) of a "ball-cam" shot during some of the drives gives us a fresh perspective on the game. Writer Mark Frost not only penned the book upon which he based the screenplay, but is a movie and TV veteran, perhaps most infamous for co-creating (with David Lynch) Twin Peaks.

The Greatest Game Ever Played fits nicely into the sports sub-genre populated by Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle. The goal of these films is to use true stories to re-mythologize sports - something that bucks the trend of digging up dirt to besmirch superstar reputations. Those stories have their place as well, but it's nice to find the occasional inspirational tale, and The Greatest Game Ever Played is as feel-good as any sports movie you're likely to find. It's a solid choice for family viewing, but is equally worthy of viewing by solo adults. And being a golf fan is not a prerequisite.

Greatest Game Ever Played, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-30
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1